Becoming a columnist for the Partial Observer has been a most interesting experience. One of the first things that came to my attention was that there seems to be a rather large contingent of the readership based in one of my two hometowns. As soon as you put the word "Brewton" in an article that appears on this website, you are almost guaranteed that more than a few folks will find it, read it, print it, comment on it and/or discuss it among themselves.
For the many other readers of the website who don't have a clue what all the fuss is about, I thought I would offer my perspective on this most unusual small town.
My love/hate relationship with Brewton began in 1971, when I was 14 years old. My mother, a newly-minted graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, was offered a teaching position at T.R. Miller High School in Brewton that year. She also had a similar offer at a high school in Bradenton, Florida. I was gung-ho for the Florida idea, but my father had a different slant on things. When he returned from the Korean War, many years before, his parents had been living in Brewton. He thought the women were beautiful (why this was a selling point for my mother, I'll never understand) and that the hoop cheese at Fountain's in East Brewton was to die for. So, for the cheese and the women, or the cheesy women, we left the only home I'd ever known in the summer of 1971.
I was crushed that we were leaving Waynesboro, Mississippi, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, in my selfish mind at that time, were all the personal sacrifices I was going to have to make. I was scheduled to turn fifteen in just two weeks after the move, which meant I would be eligible for my driver's license. Moving to Alabama caused me to have to postpone that rite of passage for a full year, as the driving age there was, and still is, sixteen. I learned that we were definitely moving the week before majorette tryouts, which I had also been waiting for just my whole life. I had been a twirling fool since I could pick the baton up and felt I had an excellent chance of making it.
There was a sense of loss in other respects as well. I grew up with all four of my grandparents being a huge part of my life, along with a host of aunts, uncles and cousins who all also lived in Waynesboro. I knew no one at all in Brewton, with the exception of one cousin I had not seen since we were small children. My lifelong friends – all the kids I had started elementary school with or lived next door to or gone to church with – I knew I may never see again. I had a new boyfriend I didn't want to leave; he could already drive and we were looking forward to going places, like Pitt's Cave, the gravel pits, and the waterfall behind the old mill, all of which were way cool. I hadn't yet been able to do all of these things because, as with the driver's license, fifteen was also the magic age at my house for dating.
I lamented these losses the same way I had dealt with a myriad of emotions throughout my young life: I climbed up in the mimosa tree and cried my eyes out. From this vantage point, I could see all of the things in our backyard that I knew and loved so well. A few feet away, my former favorite climbing tree – a smooth-barked chinaberry - still had ropes tying it to the ground in an attempt to stabilize damage brought on by Hurricane Camille two summers earlier. I bid it adieu and sent up a little prayer that its roots might grab hold once more. We had two peach trees and an apricot tree and I reflected on the vast quantities of fruit I had enjoyed over the years. There was a vegetable garden in the back where we grew okra, squash, radishes, tomatoes, black-eyed peas, and butterbeans. Years before, on a visit to the co-op to buy seeds for this garden, my mom had rescued a flat of baby chicks from sure destruction. They seemed so tiny and easily contained at first, but in two weeks, they were huge and causing quite a ruckus in the back. In no time, it seemed we had a full-blown rooster sending up a rousing "Cock-a-doodle-doooooo" before 5 a.m. each day.
I was embarrassed by all of this; it wasn't as if we lived on a farm. No, we lived right smack in the middle of a regular neighborhood and our neighbors looked at us with raised eyebrows, to say the least. Dad was not bothered by their reactions; he merely put up a section of chain link fence to separate the growing livestock from the rest of the back yard. Thus, we came to have fresh brown eggs and – sad to say – some pretty darned good fried chicken as well. Over the years, the chickens were joined by turkeys, quail, and pheasant. I think I even remember a rabbit or two as well.
Finally, I spotted the little goldfish pond, which had happened quite by accident. The water faucet out back which was used to water the garden dripped for so long that it made a hollow in the earth. It eventually got quite deep, and since it continued to hold water, my ever-quirky Dad just threw a couple of fish in it. I guess it must have been a male and female set…
I considered strapping myself to the trunk of the mimosa and refusing to leave, but, ever the dutiful daughter, I merely packed up my things and climbed into the U-Haul with the rest of the family. I think the only thing that kept me from jumping out as we went down the hill for the last time was the fact that Dad had enlisted the aid of the boyfriend to help us move and thus, he was in the U-Haul with us.
Somehow, we let the U-Haul run completely out of gas in Coffeeville. Dad was not a happy camper. The day was further marred when, after we finally arrived at our new home in Brewton, Dad and the boyfriend got the very first piece of furniture off the truck wedged in the back door. So, there we were, tinkling the ivories on Mom's piano, neither in nor out of the house, when the neighbor from across the street brought us all some cool lemonade. If she thought we were crazy, she kept mum about it. Armed with this nectar from the gods, I slipped away from the fiasco that was the furniture moving and took a little stroll down the creek that edged our new backyard on two sides.
Hey! There are some little baby fish in this creek! Maybe they'll grow. And look! I do believe those are two peach trees! What a coincidence. And heavenly days, look at the monster tomatoes on all these plants. There must be almost a hundred of 'em; what tasty fried green tomatoes I'll have tomorrow! No chickens in sight – what a relief – and just take a look at that fine lookin' boy walkin' down the street!
Things were looking up! I hurried back towards the house to start bringing in boxes through one of the other doors. It was a bit further of a walk, but I was newly inspired.
And so, it started. I began in my own backyard and started falling in love with Brewton. Tucked into a pine forest, the area itself was beautiful. One street in particular captured my attention: Belleville Avenue, where Dad told me all the aforementioned beautiful women of his past had lived and where he had shown off his new, post-war convertible. Beginning in town as a fork off Highway 31, the shady street is exceptionally handsome, lined with huge homes framed by wide expanses of perfectly groomed lawns. I was able to ride my bike over to this street and explore on my own, fascinated by the homes of the rich-and-I-wasn't-sure-if–they-were-famous, and finding the high school football stadium, hospital, and several beautiful churches here as well.
Within just a few short days, I met a pretty girl named Sarah who lived on the next street over. We became thick, fast friends. She and my long lost cousin Jan became a part of my life and served as an invaluable guide to all things important – school, band practice, the pool, boys. Jan took me to the bowling alley for my first-ever experience and did a great job not laughing when I dropped my first ball behind me as I took shaky, cautious steps towards the foul line. I had my first taste of pizza that summer and couldn't believe what I had been missing.
While my 15th birthday was a bitter pill to swallow indeed – too little too late, as it were – I came to believe that everything in Brewton was bigger, better, prettier, than it had been in Waynesboro. Band practice preceded the opening of school and I made new friends here as well, although I did overhear one girl tell another that she hated me. While that stung me to my soul, it confused me even more, as I hadn't really even made the acquaintance of either one at that point. I realized that I had never had to utilize any sort of people skills whatsoever, as I had simply been born with all the people who were my friends and we had always known each other. If I had any personality traits that were worthy of hatred, they were apparently so accustomed to it that they just let it go. In some ways, I believe that I owe my skills as a teacher and communicator to that summer, where I had to learn to adapt and be flexible within a new environment on the fly.
Football season and the opening day of school came hand-in-hand and the "I've died and gone to heaven" feeling was complete. Oh, we played football in Waynesboro, and played it well. But never had I experienced the feeling of literally being a part of the team from my spot in the stands. We creamed Greenville that night, and I was completely dazed and delighted by the spectacle. The cheerleaders were cheer leaders; I quickly picked up the words to each of their chants and yelled at the top of my lungs along with the rest of the band members and huge numbers of spectators from the student body and the community. We performed various hand motions to each little ditty or thrust our band hats into the air in unison to punctuate each "Go, Tigers!" at the end of a trumpet fanfare or drum cadence. The hot early September evening made it a little more difficult for me to look at the majorettes in their short, form-fitting red velvet uniforms, given that I was wearing a heavy wool band uniform. Still, I wore it proudly; the black pants were nothing to write home about, but the red jacket overlaid with a white leather vest sporting a huge red M on the front was the very epitome of school spirit, especially after the solid black of Waynesboro's military style uniforms.
The big win in the football opener kicked off some serious class competitiveness the following Monday morning. Each hallway of the school was decorated by a different class and the results were impressive indeed. Some of the teachers turned their bulletin board display cases over to the students, who filled them with rubber chickens (Pluck the Eagles!) or stuffed kittens (Tame the Wildcats!), while every available wall space and rafter had a white sign emblazoned with red letters, urging the Tigers on to a winning season. The excitement in the air was palpable, and by Friday of each week, it had reached a fever pitch by the time of the afternoon pep rally.
I knew now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this move to Brewton was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Little could I know, then, that it would also turn out to be the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone.
To be continued…